Terrorism of the workplace

April 25, 2013

The lack of workplace safety in the U.S. is frightening fact of life for millions of workers who contend with the dangers every day, explains Trish Kahle.

AS EVENTS in Boston spiraled toward martial law in the days after the Boston Marathon bombing, another deadly explosion rocked a town in Texas. A chemical explosion at the West Fertilizer Co., equivalent to the strength of a 2.1 magnitude earthquake, killed 15 people and injured more than 200, according to latest reports.

One day after the blast, Reuters suggested it might be the result of a terrorist attack, writing, "While authorities stressed the Texas explosion could be an accident, it happened within days of the deadly Boston Marathon bombings and the discovery of poisonous packages sent to President Barack Obama and a Republican senator--both incidents that have revived memories of the September 11, 2001, attacks."

It quickly emerged, however, that the explosion was the result of a fire that ignited the company's massive stockpile of chemicals, while reporters revealed West Fertilizer Co.'s long record of safety violations and failure to comply with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations.

Residents of the nursing home in West, Texas, receive treatment following the explosion
Residents of the nursing home in West, Texas, receive treatment following the explosion (Rod Aydelotte)

Mike Elk, a reporter for In These Times, explained why OSHA hadn't inspected the plant since 1985:

That's not uncommon. This is a nonunion facility. The way OSHA typically works, and as well as the EPA, is that they get a call from a worker, and then inspectors show up, and they inspect the plant, and they find problems. When you have a nonunion workforce, like you have in this plant, that's a lot less likely, since many folks are scared of losing their jobs.

A familiar narrative is emerging: workers' lives (and, in this case, the lives of first responders and community members) sacrificed for the sake of profit. And it also reveals a second side to the story: the importance of unions in protecting workers' lives.

INDUSTRIAL ACCIDENTS of varying magnitude occur every day. In 2010, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 4,690 workers--that's 13 workers every day--died on the job in the United States. The AFL-CIO estimates another 50,000 died from occupational diseases. And these numbers don't even begin to address workplace injuries, which often leave workers permanently disabled.

Some of the more severe accidents enter the public view. The same day as the West Fertilizer explosion, which forced the evacuation of the entire town, a fire at an oil refinery in Beaumont, Texas, injured five workers.

In 2010, there were four major industrial accidents: the Massey Energy Upper Big Branch mine explosion killed 29 miners, the biggest mining accident since the Mannington explosion that killed 78 miners 40 years before; the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 workers (and caused one of the largest environmental catastrophes in history); a Connecticut power plant explosion killed five; and a refinery explosion in Washington state killed seven workers.

Patterns of industrial accidents also reflect other inequalities in our society. Latino workers remain at increased risk for on-the-job death, with a fatal accident rate of 3.9 per 100,000 (compared to 3.6 per 100,000 for the American workforce as a whole), and immigrant Latino workers make up more than 62 percent of Latino worker deaths. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Latino worker deaths is this trend: since 1992, fatalities among Latino workers have increased 33 percent, while overall workplace death has declined by almost 25 percent.

Industrial accidents aren't a necessary part of work, although they have come to appear as if they are. Workplace accidents can largely be prevented. The most common cause of death in the workplace is traffic accidents--as drivers pressed to make mileage requirements or hit a delivery deadline end up disregarding traffic laws or falling asleep at the wheel.

Accidents also occur when the work rate is increased, leaving less time for safety checks, or when companies refuse to replace or maintain equipment, which malfunctions and then causes an accident. Some industries, like mining and chemical production, place workers in tight quarters with unstable and/or flammable gases and materials.

Take, for example, the coal miners' disease pneumoconiosis, known as black lung, which is a debilitating respiratory disease that makes it difficult for the lungs to process oxygen.

In the 1970s, American coal operators refused to admit that black lung was in any way related to working in the mines, even as affected miners continued to die and more developed the condition. But Appalachian doctors noted that in Australia, where workers had more protections, the problem of black lung had almost been completely eliminated through the introduction of proper safety masks for underground work.

THE RECENT explosion at Massey Energy also didn't need to happen. In just one year leading up to the blast, Massey was fined $382,000 for "repeated unrepentant violations" of health and safety requirements, including improper ventilation levels, lacking equipment plans, and poor implementation of safety procedure. In the month before the explosion, the company received 57 safety citations, including two the day before. From 2005-10, the mine had committed 1,342 safety violations.

These tales echo in West, Texas. We now know that West Fertilizer violated safety regulations when it didn't disclose its storage of "1,350 times the amount of ammonium nitrate that would normally trigger safety oversight by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security." In addition, the company had received citations for safety violations after not receiving permits for equipment updates and inspections.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had repeatedly cited the company for deficiencies in its risk-management program. The regulatory agency that oversees pipelines and transportation of hazardous materials had also recently fined the company $10,000 "for failings that included planning to transport anhydrous ammonia without adequate security," but the company had the fine reduced to $5,250 by agreeing to take corrective action.

But why don't the companies take steps to avoid fines in the first place? Why don't they preemptively take action to ensure worker safety?

First, for multimillion- and multibillion-dollar corporations, these fines are a pittance--barely a slap on the wrist. Often times, it's cheaper to pay the fine, even to pay fines repeatedly, than it is to fix the problem. Even in cases of worker fatality, fines are too low to deter violation. On average, in 2010, companies paid only a $7,900 fine in cases of on-the-job fatalities.

Companies would rather risk worker death than slow production and see a fall in profits. As a miner in Harlan County USA, a documentary about a 1973 strike by Kentucky coal miners, recalls, the boss "can hire another man. [You] got to buy a mule."

Plus, according to U.S. law, in a precedent dating back the 1842 case of Farwell v. Boston and Worcester Rail Road Corp., an employer cannot be held responsible for workplace accidents, death or injury unless willful neglect on the part of the employer can be "proven." As the AFL-CIO Death on the Job report notes:

Criminal penalties under the OSHA law are weak. They are limited to cases in which a willful violation results in a worker death and are misdemeanors. Since 1970, only 84 cases have been prosecuted, with defendants serving a total of 89 months in jail. During this time, there were more than 370,000 worker deaths. By comparison, in [fiscal year] 2011, there were 371 criminal enforcement cases initiated under federal environmental laws and 249 defendants charged, resulting in 89.5 years of jail time and $35 million in penalties--more cases, fines and jail time in one year than during OSHA's entire history.

The result? Employers pursue profits--which they are compelled to do by the mechanism of market competition--at whatever cost is necessary. If workers suffer declines in living standards, that's what the market dictates. If a worker loses an arm during an assembly line speedup, she was careless. If a worker dies in the tobacco fields, they can rarely be held accountable in any way that meaningfully provides impetus for improved treatment.

This pattern emerges clearly across time, geography (for example, textile fires in Bangladesh) and industry. Of course, the pattern has been interrupted from time to time. Working conditions used to be much, much worse. If there's any doubt about this, Frederick Engels' The Condition of the Working Class in England and Upton Sinclair's The Jungle are worth reading. Through their collective power, workers and their unions have struggled for and won many gains that not only save workers' lives, but also make life as a working-class person more tolerable.

These include eight-hour workdays (though not if House Republicans have their way), weekends, sick days (if you are lucky enough to have them), safety equipment and procedures, and federal oversight agencies--which, measured by the decrease in worker death rates since the creation of OSHA in 1970, have saved the lives of more than 451,000 workers.

But the rise of neoliberalism--based on privatization, deregulation and attacks on unions and anything else deemed to stand in the way of "economic progress"--has ravaged working-class gains, while also leading to budget cuts for oversight agencies like OSHA.

Thus, the implementation of the neoliberal agenda has facilitated the corporate drive to reduce or eliminate safety measures and other protections for workers. With only 2,178 inspectors for more than 8 million workplaces, OSHA can inspect all workplaces in the U.S. once every 131 years.

IF TERRORISM is the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims, then working under conditions outlined above is a kind of terrorism.

Many workers must face the constant stress of potentially suffering bodily harm or the constant anxiety about whether they are being exposed to deadly carcinogens or other dangerous materials on the job without adequate protection. And when reporting safety violations could threaten a worker's ability to keep a job and put food on the table, there truly is nothing to stand in the way of the relentless drive to make profits.

That's not to say corporate executives meet each Thursday to plan attacks on the workers; they don't need to do that. The logic of the system, imposed on every firm by the mechanism of market competition, provides all the coordination that's needed, and the capitalists reap the benefits for themselves.

Mining folk music shows how deeply this terror has pervaded our culture:

--"Oh I dreamed that the mines was all raging with fire, the miners all fought for their lives."

"There's a man in a big house way up on a hill, far far from the shack where the poor miner dwells, he's got plenty of money, lord everything's fine. He has forgotten the Mannington Mine...where 78 good men so uselessly died."

"Shut up in the mines of the coal creek, we know that we must die."

"That there's a blue mark left by the coal, little more and I'd have been dead."

And then, if we step back to see the ecological crisis we find ourselves in, we might wonder why we still send workers thousands of feet underground, in small potentially deadly tunnels to retrieve coal? Or why do we engage in a dangerous and destructive drilling process to extract oil? The same work that is the most deadly to workers is also killing the environment.

When "accidents" happen, media and investigative reports most often blame workers, saying that proper safety procedures weren't followed, the workers were careless, and so on. Little is ever said of the pressure placed on workers by management to work faster and to cut corners in order to cut costs. The high levels of unemployment and under-employment are wielded as threats against us--to make us work faster, to discourage us from organizing and to keep us in a perpetual state of fear.

Those are not empty threats. As the size of the industrial workforce has been diminished since the 1970s, the threat of layoffs and the consequence of long-term unemployment are too real, and accompanied by the step-by-step dismantling of the already too small welfare system for working and poor people.

Capitalism is set up to compel people to work in order to meet their basic needs. And if people are desperate enough, they will take any work they can find, even if it's deadly, like a fertilizer factory (especially a non-union one), even if it's emotionally degrading, like working in customer service. The alternative is to starve.

But because of workers' central role in making the gears of capitalism turn, workers have the power to change this state of affairs. Through unions, through social movements, we can win vital reforms that will save the lives of workers now. We can demand accountability from companies like West Fertilizer, Massey Energy and BP.

"Accidents" like the West Fertilizer explosion are particularly egregious offenses of a system that is economically disastrous for workers, devastating for the ecosystem and morally defunct. Together, we can fight for a socialist alternative that puts human needs before profit.

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